Monday, 5 December 2011

Charter Schools - The Education of Children Used As Deal Maker

Former National cabinet minister, new Act member and sole ACT MP John Banks has won a concession that John Key will allow some New Zealand children to be subjected to the charter school experiment as part of his deal to assist National with its programme of forcing a free market agenda upon New Zealand.

Considering neither National or ACT campaigned on charter schools a number of people are asking, "What are charter schools and do they work?"

Worryingly I have just heard the Prime Minister on Radio New Zealand respond to a journalist's question about not putting this before the electorate, with words to the effect, "Well do you think that the average voter will actually care if with all the hundreds of state schools in New Zealand, if we make a couple of them charter schools?" To my mind this speaks of an callous indifference to the welfare of the children he is subjecting to being John Banks' guinea pigs.

First charter schools are publicly-funded private schools. They are primary or secondary schools that receive public money but are not subject to some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each school's charter.

Do they work? From my reading of evaluation research and several articles I believe that charter schools don't outperform public schools in any meaningful way. Interestingly the New Zealand Business Roundtable has a link on its website to this article which summarises the research concisely: "The evaluation by the School Choice Demonstration Project, a national research group that matched more than 3,000 students from the choice program and from regular public schools, found that pupils in the choice program generally had “achievement growth rates that are comparable” to similar Milwaukee public-school students. This is just one of several evaluations of school choice programs that have failed to show major improvements in test scores, but the size and age of the Milwaukee program, combined with the rigor of the study, make these results hard to explain away."(Charles Murray, Perspectives: Issue 368 Why Charter Schools Fail the Test, 19 May 2010).

There seems to be a preoccupation with testing in charter schools. That is as success is measured by children meeting predetermined test markers, processes are put in place to ensure the schools accept only those children who will perform. This has led to allegations of "cherry picking."

Ross Barkan on 21 July 2011 wrote an article highlighting several problems entitled, "Bronx Charter School's Failure Highlights Failure of Charter Schools": "As a charter school, Academic Leadership is required by New York state law to admit students through a random lottery. But multiple parents and staff members described a process designed by the school’s director to weed out low-performing students.

Four parents who tried to enroll their children at Academic Leadership, an elementary school, this year or last year said that school employees tested their children before deciding whether or not to accept them."

This article reveals several of the problems inherent in the charter-school model. One is that a randomised lottery is supposed to determine who goes to a charter school. Since when did access to education become a game of chance? One might think that lotteries, at least, must be fair, but why should the educational futures of small children — who already hail from the economic underclass because wealthier areas tend to keep charters out of their school districts—now hang in the balance of one right or wrong selection from lottery box?

Further, the state school system is already struggling. Now it appears that state schools who take allcomers regardless of ability - to give them their entitlement - a free education; are going to have precious funds siphoned away to fund charter schools when the international research shows that despite promising much in fact deliver little.

Earlier this year John Key announced in a public meeting in Masterton that funding was going to be cut for the Wairarapa's flagship last chance school Ohorere Student Transition Programme. That school has a proven track record with an 85 percent success rate at taking troubled young children and getting back on track to return to and complete mainstream education. It cost just $150,000 a year to run (the same prices as 10 minutes of fireworks used to open the Rugby World Cup). It has ERO report after ERO report congratulating the school on its success. It is shameful that a school which has a proven record of success with some of the children from the poorest levels of our communities, is going to be binned when Mr Key can find millions of dollars to plough into charter schools, just to make a deal with a former National Party cabinet minister, when the bulk of research suggests charter schools are a failure.

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